Category Archives: The Write Stuff

How My AP Literature Teacher Crushed My Post It Note Dreams (And Taught Me How to Annotate)

What makes a good reader?

I’ve spent the last two years of teaching juniors trying to answer this very question and each year I arrive at some same things and some different.  This year I taught a class of freshman for the first time.  While I learned many things while teaching freshmen, the course itself demanded that both student and teacher have a clear understanding of what exactly is a good reader.  In fact, one could argue that freshman year objectives are centered around habits of a good reader.  So how do teachers answer that question?

If taking 9th grade “Coming of Age” Module, it means reflective interaction with the text.  Don’t be fooled; this is just a fancy way of saying good annotations.  I was somewhat suprised that most freshmen do not know how to annotate.  Only somewhat surprised because I did not know how to annotate well until college.  But what exactly are good annotations?  And do annotations make strong readers? The short answer is yes and no.

Stick noteGrowing up, I was never allowed to mark in my books.  Books were assigned and the classroom copy recieved was kept in near pristine condition despite years of use.  My teachers threatened us with hefty fines if a book dare have a stray pencil mark.  This was problematic; I am a visual learner who needs a tactile experience to remember things.  I need to write in books.  I need to ask my questions in the moments I read them.  (And believe me, sticky notes and the book are not the same thing. ) My senior year in high school, my mother decided she was through buying massive amounts of sticky notes.  She bought my books for the AP Literature and AP Language classes.  The struggle then was not “could I write in a book and get away with it” but “what do I write in the book now that I own it?”  My current color coded system seemed out of place.  The pink sticky notes that indicated a vocabulary word or the blue sticky notes that indicated a good quote lacked the immediate silent scream they once had when they hung over the page edge. “This page, right here, this page” became very irrelevant when I could write in the book.  But what would I write?

I started the AP course and the first thing the teacher told me was that I did not know how to annotate, that it didn’t matter if I used sticky notes or if I wrote them in myself: it was not annotating.  (I’ll spare you the grief-striken two days I spent moping over sticky notes.)  I’ll never forget that moment, the teacher looking at my highlighted, color coded inked notes while we read Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5.  Lady Macbeth musing over a letter from Macbeth, newly Thane of Cawdor:

Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.”  (Shakespeare I.V)

“That’s not annotating.  Where are your questions for Lady Macbeth? Your own reactions? Why is that word important?  How do know that quote means more than a series of phrases?”

When I teach good annotations, I start with this story.  I think my students feel the same I did all those years ago; they know to define words that are new to them.  They know how to identify strong passages.  But like me, they don’t know why they are important or how to use annotations to breathe into a text, to let the story completely overtake your thoughts (or corrupt your thoughts in the case of Macbeth). They don’t know how to interact with both story and their own curiosity.  I knew enough to highlight Lady Macbeth’s famous lines, but I didn’t know to engage them.  I had to learn, to be pushed into what I’m calling annotation justification.  I had to ask myself why that word, that phrase, that moment was important to both me the reader and me the audience.  One digests information; the other reacts.  I had to learn how to change my annotations from “this is Lady Macbeth commenting on Macbeth’s inability to act on his ambitions” to “fascinating that Shakespeare makes a woman the villian, and that she is labeled such because she chooses to aggressively pursue power through her husband.”

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Annotating for intent, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

 

It didn’t happen overnight.  It did happen though.  My teacher spent the first ten minutes of every class sharing her annotations, quite literally, under a document camera.  She justified each notation.  And when she couldn’t, she asked questions about why that seemed important; she predicted why it might become crucial to a character.  She did this every day of the six months I spent in her class senior year.  Did I still define words for clarity? Yes.  But I hunted down better words, words that pushed on the text (“the milk of

human kindess” instantly feminizes Macbeth).  And it changed the way I read.

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Annotating The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

 

I provided the same courtesy to the freshman.  Under a document camera (even old technology can be the best for a particular purpose), I justified every annotation of mine for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and for Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist.  And I let them ask questions, interrogate my selections or sometimes dialogue about the questions we shared as a class.  Will it make them better readers? Maybe. Do I worry they will create systems of organizations so complex it will overwhelm more than help? A bit.  But at the end of the day if the only lesson learned is that becoming a good reader is hard work, I’ll take it.  If at the end of the day, they find value in their own questioning and engage words that push through meaning, then I know I’ve created readers who will keep reading.

And I’m wondering what that might look like when I see them again as juniors.

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand words (ok, maybe more like 261?)

When teaching English, it’s easy to forget that visual literacy isn’t just the ability to read and interpret written text.  Especially in today’s world- infographics, ads, commercials, movies- they all demand some inference and interpretation very similar to analyzing a story.  This was very much at the heart of one of my favorite teaching activities to do with students.

In this particular case, I asked them to gather items for a character’s suitcase.  See if you can guess what character it might be (Some hints:  I was teaching American Drama and the movie is a classic).

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Guess who’s coming to dinner…

A pearl necklace, a scarf, a bit of lace, perfume, lipstick, tea, and heels?  This can only mean Blanche DuBois.  They even arranged it artfully so- leading us to discuss the things that would upset Stanley or how one might modernize the movie by substituting certain items (“who drinks tea anymore? I’d drop a Starbucks card in there bruh”) or updating her wardrobe (“girl has a thing for lace.  Someone get her some Gucci leather”).

The best part: this can be modified to do any character from literature.  Have a knapsack? Huck Finn does.  How about a green tarp?  Better see to Pilate (Song of Solomon).

And then, if you are really ambitious, snap a photo and you have an instant quiz/test question: “choose an item from the suitcase that symbolically represents that character.  Explain it’s significance and compare the item to the character.”  As I tell my students, no surprises here.  Just pictures turned into words.  Make it so.

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Things I Assume the Juniors Know But Don’t….

1. Annotate in a productive, fruitful manner.

2. Cite correctly in MLA style.

3.  Outline a paper.

4. Understand grammar lingo associated with paper editing, feedback, and construction.

 

Yikes.  Looks like I have some planning to do for next year….

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Reason #34 why I love OneNote

Because my students rock at outlining.

OneNote Essay Outlining

OneNote Essay Outlining

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“Outlining Sucks” or Why Students Hate the Hard Parts

I tell my students all the time that essays are my favorite part of teaching English.  It gets me a lot of eyerolling, but it’s true.  Well, partly: I love teaching essay construction more than I actually like to do essay construction.  The part of the essay planning that actually involves, well planning.  But I’ve also been one for picking something a part to see how it works.  Essay construction is very much like that- trying to pick apart a piece of literature and figure out how it works while simultanously constructing an essay that works.  Most students I know skip this step.  Instead of outlining, planning, gathering evidence, figuring out a thesis, they jump right in.  And it almost never turns out well.

I tell my students this but inevitably they by pass this stage anyway.  When it came time for the big out of class essay round two, I was determined not to get the same paper- brilliant in spots but lacking evidence, well said in a sentence but lacking any structure.  I was receiving 30 papers that had moments of clarity but lacked any overall organization.

When did we start skipping this step?  When did I start skipping this step?

This aggression will not stand, Donnie.

So the last module, I decided to spend a two days on essay organization.  Not only did my students enjoy and really understand the importance of this process, but their papers were infinitely better.

I had them start out with a series of different colored post it notes.  The first step in this process is to identify a controlling idea, or a thesis.  Most students just jotted down a fragment, an idea. Outlining oneHere, this student starts with the blue sticky note, “pilate vs macon/life of freedom/both children of the flying Solomon”.  We then talk about how to create good thesis statements- that the significance is really crucial.  One can talk all day about how Toni Morrison uses a certain symbol, but if you don’t explain why this is significant in your essay then I don’t care. Yellow sticky notes indicate further exploration; the thesis becomes “Society shops the idea of freedom into different forms for each of Solomon’s children”.  While not completely finished, I give them the go ahead for outlining.  I use red, yellow, and green page tabs.  Yellow indicates to proceed, but know the thesis will need more once the outlining is complete.  Red means “ahhh no stop!  Give me more on this idea!”  Green is easy- it means keep going.

And then the fun begins.  We talk about different ways to outline and organize information.  I tell them a story two ways: in a chronological order and then in order of importance.  Usually it’s StarWars.  For example, I ask my students when would you prefer to met Darth Vader, when he’s young and just starting out in the force or later as an opposition to our young hero, Luke Skywalker?

Allow me to digress. This is important.

You see, some students will argue that meeting Darth Vader as a child takes away the importance of Luke’s journey.  I would agree- if the main point of the story is to highlight Luke Skywalker’s struggle with the dark side, then chronological may not be the best form of organization.  Instead, I’d highlight the most important plot points- his discovery of Leia’s message, the self discovery on Tattooine, the fight with his father.  You can skip in and out of the timeline.  However, if you are arguing the spirituality (lack thereof or glimmer from within) of Darth Vader, then one may want to tell his entire story, in chronological order.

This works for just about anything- even The Hunger Games.

Organization and structure are important; they decided how the reader gets the information.  It’s the most persuasive tool a writer can master.  Once they understand and develop their outline, they have to justify WHY (not just how) they are organizing their essay.  And this two minute conversation has been the most crucial part of the process.  Thinking about structure and the reader is the most important thing students can do in the revision/creation part of an essay. Outlining 3

Once they have their outline on yellow sticky notes (and another tagged approval process happens), I ask them to write a personal objective for their paper. This is the light green strip.  Here, this student’s personal objective is to “be less obtrusively wordy”.  With objective in mind, they start the writing process.  They go back (and I encourage them to do so) many times to their outline (now in digital form) and add, subtract, move.  Some even use the sticky notes as placemarkers; ways to imagine what their essay might look like if organized differently.

When they are about halfway through the rough draft process (I did this activity on the day of peer review), I Outline 2ask them to identify three things about their paper: the strongest sentence, the strongest piece of evidence (quoted material from the text), and a list of four to five words that they really feel articulate the paper.  This go on post it notes for reflection later.

I have a nine panel window door that I used for each of my nine students to hang their process.  The important part is that this does go on display for the entire process.  It creates a community that holds each other accountable.

From there, they embark on their own. They might hate you at the start, but I can tell you from experience they will understand and appreciate that approaching finish line so much better.

Below is the first essay’s beginning digitalized outline after pre-planning; it turned into one of the best papers I’ve graded all year long.

OUTLINE

FLIGHT/ Freedom

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon focuses on a

Thesis: Pilate and Macon’s determination and courage to pursue their ideal freedom are qualities that has been developed from their family roots; simultaneously society impacts the two characters which formed two different lives of freedom.

  1. Macon VS. Pilate( Beliefs+ physical appearances)

Physically:

Macon-Tall, Strong, always carries keys around-pg. 55 “Own things=most important thing” quote, portrayed as “impregnable” the most feared and respected black man, willing to go to any extent for his money (power)(pg. 25 with Porter)

Pilate: Tall, strong->willing to go to any extent to protect her baby (Reba/Hagar/ Milkman?)-> Flexible: police scene, taller/ shorter in front of different people (pg. 206)

Isolated but regarded with respect, nobody bothers her (mentioned several times in the novel, people back off when they hear its related to Pilate)

Not well mannered (according to the people in the town in that time period in that society)

Beliefs: pg149->realizes how she wants to be seen in the world

Pg139->indifferent to money,

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